Turning the screws

There’s a scene early in the 1995 movie Independence Day when a vast shadow settles over New York and its citizens stare up in horror at the immensity of a looming spaceship. Similarly, when those people whose job it is to execute the third phase of the National Skills Development Strategy (NSDS3) finally wrap their heads around it, they’re going to realise it is big, mean and utterly alien.

With the implementation of the strategy just one month away, to most it is neither awesome nor frightening. It’s a detail-less mass until the department of higher education and training fleshes it out with service-level agreements with the sector education and training authorities (Setas).

But skills development practitioners, especially facilitators and training providers, should start gearing up for one hell of a fight; one they cannot hope to win if they use the weapons of the past 10 years.

In a nutshell, the first two phases of the NSDS were a “one size fits all” initiative. Each of 23 Setas was allocated a fraction of the overall target, which matched the percentage paid by their constituent companies in the form of total skills development levy income.

It was also a numbers game: the achievement of the numerical targets set by the labour department — the previous stewards of the strategy — was equated with success. Failure to do so meant just that, failure.

In terms of these so-called successful criteria, if the financial services Seta, Fasset, for which member companies paid 3,49% of the R5,65-billion collected in levies in 2008/09, did not provide literacy training for 4 900 adults within the sector that year it was under-performing.

Similarly, if the agricultural authority, AgriSeta, with 2,52% of levies collected, trained only 3 530 adult farmworkers to read and write it was deemed to be meeting the needs of the sector.

But where was the need for adult literacy training greatest? Where would the expenditure have the most impact?

Impact, though, is the nucleus of NSDS3. The newest five-year iteration of the strategy will be guided by the department, created after the 2009 general election and given responsibility for skills development just over a year ago.

Announcing the strategy on January 12, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande stressed that “during this new phase, we will make some fundamental changes to the leadership, governance and strategy of the Setas in order to meet the objectives of NSDS3 and improve their functioning and performance.

“We also intend to set up a comprehensive performance monitoring, evaluation and support system for all our education, training and skills development institutions, with a particular focus on the Setas and public FET [Further Education and Training] colleges.”

Chris Bekker, of the Cape-based Performance Excellence Alliance, believes more has been done for skills development in the past year than in the preceding decade.

“Nzimande has made it crystal clear that NSDS3 must complement other development initiatives, like the new growth path, industrial policy action plan and human resource development strategy. The strategy also states, quite categorically, that the Setas themselves, as structured authorities comprising business, labour and government, will play a much greater role in determining sectoral priorities.

“The draft sector skills plans they develop will be considered by the technical working group of the Human Resources Development Council, which comprises a far higher level of representation than anything we’ve experienced in the past,” he said.

“The group’s input and ultimate approval of the plans will give them far more credibility with business, labour and government, which, in turn, will boost the status of those who have to implement them.”

That, said Bekker, was the scary thing about NSDS3. Never before had Setas, skills development practitioners and training providers been required to measure the success of their activities against something as nebulous as impact.

“The delay in announcing NSDS3 till just two months before implementation unfortunately allows practitioners, especially skills development facilitators and training providers, very little time to acquaint themselves with the concept of performance improvement, upon which impact is based.

“The new skills development strategy revolves around a major mindset change away from a sometimes purposeless activity called training to impact, which is characterised by learning and performance.”

Bekker said that ‘external assessment of a company’s training and development needs does not necessarily guarantee appropriate recommendations, partly because outsiders do not always understand the organisation’s unique workplace realities. There is a growing need for assessment that allows stakeholders to analyse their own achievements, drawing on special external expertise if necessary.”

At the heart of that assessment was the person currently known as the skills development facilitator, Bekker said. “It is this person whose life will be most changed by NSDS3. He or she will have to acquire a far greater range of skills than they currently possess and they will have to do so very quickly. NSDS3 will not allow them to conduct their business as they have done over the past decade, not if they hope to get their workplace skills plans past the Setas or secure grant allocations.”

Janelle Gravett, of the Association for Skills Development Facilitation in South Africa, said that another flaw of the NSDS to date was that the underpinning legislation and regulations “created an animal called an SDF [skills development facilitator] and gave it a role, but didn’t accord it any status in the corporate food chain.

“While the Setas have spent vast amounts of money on giving the SDFs the capacity to do their job, there is no legal requirement for facilitators to demonstrate any form of professional competence. In fact, there are still no recognised qualifications for them.”

She asked how could they expect to be taken seriously when they started advising their employers to make potentially radical and expensive changes to the workplace to boost company performance?

In an interview in London in December, Jez Anderson of Brathay, the learning and development partner to the British team for the WorldSkills competition to be held in London this year, said that there were three “levers” to ensuring world-class performance in individuals within the working environment.

“It starts with excellent technical training, support and consistent management,” Anderson said.
“Add highly focused personal performance learning and development, coupled with holistic personal development, such as physical health and endurance, and you’ll come up with a winner every time.”

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